Monday, April 9, 2012

Easter at Arlington

From Arlington National Cemetery, McNair Rd, Arlington, VA 22211, USA
"He has risen." Easter sunrise at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
First, a confession: Holy Week did not feel very holy last week, at least in terms of how I engaged it. The demands of the final three weeks of grad school are starting to compress, and my participation in local worshiping bodies - seminary and our congregation - has been strained. No Wednesday evening lenten worship with folks at Park View Mennonite, no Love Feast with a Brethren congregation on Maundy Thursday, and no Tenebrae service. As someone fairly convinced by the formative influence of communal worship upon our body, personal and collective, this absenteeism from Holy Week worship practices really ate at me. Then my wife told me what we were going to do for Easter, when we happened to be in Washington, D.C., with her sister's family.

"We're going to the Easter sunrise service at Arlington National Cemetery."

For a Christian pacifist in the Anabaptist tradition, this is no trivial thing. But despite my initial shock at the idea, I quickly said "Ok," thinking to myself, "this will be interesting." For one thing, we were with my sister-in-law's family, and her husband is career military. Indeed, there is a strong military tradition in my wife's family, which is completely absent from my own. So in spite of my deepening Christoligcal pacifist convictions, I have a deep commitment to brothers and sisters in Christ who don't share these, especially Americans and those in my own family.

Much like I can't go a movie theater just to see a movie, I can't do something like go to a cemetery for fallen U.S. soldiers just to worship on Easter. There's no "just." There's too much other stuff going on all around, all of which has just as storied a nature as what's being celebrated on Easter. My wife will be the first to tell you that I think too much, and this is a prime example. So take a deep breath for this looong and somewhat rambling reflection on an Easter morning spent at Arlington...

A Protestant nation? And the contentious "we"
Stanley Hauerwas has argued that "America is the first great experiment in Protestant social formation." I couldn't help thinking of this as we began the worship service, hemmed in as we were by the memorial amphitheater's majestic marble colonnade, U.S. flags draped between every archway. The service was purported to be "non-denominational" but there was an unmistakably Protestant flow to the proceedings: pietistic hymns and Scripture readings, followed by the sermon as the high point of the service.

And though the worship service itself, thankfully, wasn't nearly as nationalistic in content as I thought it might have been, I couldn't avoid taking in the magnitude of the very place we were gathered, and the ways in which it was structuring our imaginative, worshipful capacities in that time: a (very) large cemetery, majestic architecture chiseled with creeds and names of heroes, and the ritual of the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which took place immediately after worship let out.

Another lesson drilled into my head by Hauerwas is the importance of the collective pronoun, "we," and how it functions in Christian fellowship. Christians though we all were yesterday morning, gathered at the memorial amphitheater for Easter, the lines between the American "we" and the Christian "we" were quite fuzzy. Indeed, I found myself wondering if any of the Christians in the audience were not American citizens. What would, for instance, a Palestinian or Afghan Christian be experiencing in such an event? Christians with any sort of awareness of the global reach of the one body of Christ should be troubled by any such confusion of who "we" is referring to.

In such an environment, the leap from soldiers making the "ultimate sacrifice" of their lives for the sake of their nation-state's existence to the "ultimate sacrifice" of Christ on the cross is far too easy to make, and verses like John 15:13 where Jesus says, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends," gets applied to the camaraderie and loyalty of fellow soldiers, with no reference to what business they're in and who they're working for.

"Gotta serve somebody"
The service was presided over by Army chaplains, music provided by the Army band and men's choir, and the sermon delivered by the Deputy Chief of Chaplains of the United States Army (and ordained elder in the United Methodist Church), Brigadier General Charles R. Bailey. There were moments in the worship service where I felt the logic of Christian worship and theological claims - through song and Scripture - challenging the very nature of the place we were gathered and what it is intended to elicit from the citizenry.

What does it mean to confess Jesus Christ is "King of kings" and "Lord of lords," as was found in the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's "Messiah," sung by the Army choir? (Mennonites at Park View singing this same song have a thing or two to teach the Army choir!) Brigadier General Bailey said in his sermon that "the church is proof that God is in the business of life," as he was talking about our nation's culture of death. I agreed wholeheartedly, but if only he understood how prophetic those words are! If he did, he would not have been able to say elsewhere with a straight face that the church is basically indebted to our nation-state for the freedom to assemble and worship whatever/whoever/however.

The church is indebted to no temporal order, period. Our (the church's) life together is indebted to the crucified and risen Jesus and his Spirit's continuing work in us and the world, for the reconciliation of all creation unto God: new heavens, new earth, new life. Nations rage from age to age, but the body of Christ endures for the sake of the sin-sick world, to the glory of God.

Drawing near the end of the sermon, brother Bailey was reflecting on resurrection and history. He mentioned the now-familiar American sentiment that 9/11 "changed the world" and that "nothing will ever be the same." Wisely, he said, "that's false," and held up the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the only event in human history in which the world/cosmos/history was changed in any substantive way. It was another moment where I yearned for the prophetic quality of sermonic reflection to break forth in the gathered assembly. And yet...

As I mentioned above, after worship many of those gathered walked to the east side of the amphitheater to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where we silently witnessed the changing of the guard. I'm not even going to try and describe the ritual except to say that it's highly elaborate and contains symbolism that is mostly lost on me. There is even a creed for the soldiers who stand at this 24-hour watch. As I watched, I couldn't help but compare this with what had just come before. One legacy of the Protestant Reformation is its militancy toward ritual, plainly evident in the just-concluded worship service. Yet here we were witnessing an act that deeply engaged the bodies of three soldiers. I couldn't help but think that standing this guard is like taking monastic orders, monasticism being another thing Protestants pitched out the window.

If Hauerwas is right that America is the "first great experiment in Protestant social formation," we see it played out in interesting ways on Easter at Arlington. Citizens gather to get comfort and assurance that resurrection is primarily about "going to heaven"...someday. But what do we do in the meantime, with our bodies? Conveniently, the nation-state has a solution: your "soul" may belong to Jesus, but your body belongs to Uncle Sam. So obey the latter and the former will raise you up on the last day.

Unfortunately I think this is terribly idolatrous theology and makes for hamstrung Christian discipleship, doomed to ever be caught in the tension between two masters, not to mention the problems it presents Americans who aren't Christian or Christian who aren't American, all present realities that need to be accounted for.

Am I an ungrateful American citizen? No. Jesus was not a zealot and neither am I. In my Christian walk, I attempt to "render unto Caesar(s)" and "render unto God," and try my damnedest to know with the whole of my being the difference between the two. And on Easter at Arlington...I saw some pretty stark differences.

But in other ways I'm deeply grateful for having worshiped there. True, I was absent from my local worshiping community, which is not good. In some ways, then, this was a sojourning experience. In a strange place, with family, I prayed the prayers, sang the songs, and listened intently to the Scriptures read and the sermon preached. And as an Army chaplain whose boss is the Commander in Chief of the Unites States military prayed the benediction, I raised my hands to prayerfully receive it. And if Jesus is Lord then I entrust my prayerful agitations to him and yearn for Christians (including myself) to have scales fall off eyes and begin embodying more fully Christ's resurrection body. May it be so this first day after Easter...on all the earth.

[Also relevant, a post from last year: Easter after Communism]

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